What is Ayurveda?
Born in India more than 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is a health-care system that offers guidelines on foods, herbs and lifestyle practices based on one's unique constitution and current environment.
Ayurveda is a guide for living a healthy, blissful life. Written down by sages approximately 1500 years ago, the various texts of Ayurveda provide us with an elegant model for understanding the constitutional differences between people. Ayurveda explains that what is good for one person may not be good for another and what is unhealthy for one person may be healthy for another and that this can all change as the seasons or our life changes.
The texts of Ayurveda not only provide medical advice, they take a great deal of time simply describing the world in which we live. According to Ayurveda, understanding our external environment allows us to gain a deeper understanding of our internal environment, because as creatures of this planet, we are very affected by what is going on around us, including the change of seasons.
At its most basic level, the universe is described as being composed of five great elements (pancha mahabhuta). Everything we see, hear, smell, taste and feel (including ourselves) is composed of a combination of these five elements:
Ether (akasha) – Ether is space. We are surrounded and also filled with space. It is the most subtle of all of the elements.
Air (vayu) – Air is the element of movement (a better translation might be 'wind'). Air governs all movement in the body (nerve impulses, circulation of blood, movement of the arms, etc.).
Fire (agni) – Fire is responsible for all transformation that happens in the body (metabolic processes, digestion, transforming our experiences into knowledge, etc.).
Water (apas) – Water protects and nourishes. It holds digestive juices, it is present in the plasma of the blood, and it is the conduit in which nutrients travel through the body. It can manifest as mucus, synovial fluid, cerebral spinal fluid, etc.
Earth (prithvi) – Earth is the most condensed form of all the energies and manifests through the body's solid/dense structures (bones, cartilage, nails, hair, teeth, etc.). Earth gives us structure and form.
In the human body, these elemental energies combine to form dosha. Doshas have important functional roles to play in the body (e.g. vata dosha, a combination of ether and air, is responsible for the movement of the breath among many other things). However, doshas have a strong tendency to cause trouble in the body when the body is even slightly out of balance, providing us with signs that something is not quite right. In fact, the literal translation of the sanskrit word dosha is “that which is at fault”. There are three doshas present in each of us, in different combinations: vata dosha, pitta dosha and kapha dosha.
Vata – Vata is composed of air and ether. In its normal state within the human body, vata is responsible for all movement: breathing, blinking, speaking, muscular contraction, etc.
In a person born with a higher proportion of ether and air (vata), you might notice a slighter physique, thin bones, thin hair, dry skin, crooked teeth, quick movement, irregularity in digestion, and a tendency toward coldness. This person will talk fast, walk fast, and quickly change their mind and direction of thought. They learn quickly, but forget quickly. They tend to be very creative and love to move!
If vata is too high/unbalanced, this person can become disorganized, unstable, constipated, gassy, anxious, and scatterbrained. They may experience painfully dry joints, a racing mind, insomnia, and the inability to sit still.
Vata is highest in the late fall and winter and also in the latter years of our lives (60+).
Pitta – Pitta is composed of fire and water. In its normal state, pitta is responsible for digestion, maintenance of body temperature, metabolism and all fire (transformation) in the body.
In a person born with a lot of pitta dosha, you might see a medium frame with good muscle development; strong digestion; a warm body temperature; reddish/sensitive skin that tends toward oiliness; sharp mental ability and focus; and good leadership qualities.
In an imbalanced state, pitta can cause inflammation, loose stools, skin problems, heartburn, anger, rigidity, and over-judgement.
Pitta is highest in the summer and from puberty to around 60 years old.
Kapha – Kapha is composed of water and earth. In its normal state, kapha is responsible for the body's physical structure and, also, lubrication.
In a person born with a lot of kapha dosha, you might see a larger frame, slow digestion and metabolism, big eyes, and thick, smooth hair and skin. This person will likely be faithful, steady, and compassionate.
In an imbalanced state, kapha can cause excess weight, depression, sluggishness, excess mucus, edema, lack of motivation, greed, lethargy and attachment.
Kapha dosha is highest in the spring and from birth to puberty.
Just as some of us have more air than fire, some of us have more vata than pitta, and so on. Our personal combination of dosha in the body is our prakriti (constitution). There are seven constitutional types: vata-pitta, pitta-vata, pitta-kapha, kapha-pitta, vata-kapha, kapha-vata and vata-pitta-kapha (tridoshic).
Imbalances in the body are evaluated through the understanding of the elements and doshas and their influence on us. As we move through the seasons of the year, we are affected by the shift in the predominant elements of our environment. When a body is out of balance, Ayurvedic health-care involves taking note of the dominant qualities of the environment and of an individual's tendencies and takes both into account when advising changes in diet, lifestyle or yoga practice.